By Funmi Falana
It is common knowledge that the National Assembly has commenced the process of reviewing the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended. Last week, the Senate resolved to amend Section 29 of the Constitution pertaining to Renunciation of Citizenship. The said section provides as follows:
“29(1)Any citizen of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation.
(2)The President shall cause the declaration made under subsection(1) of this section to be registered and upon such registration, the person who made the declaration shall cease to be a citizen of Nigeria.
(3)The President may withhold the registration of any declaration made under subsection (1) of this section if-
The declaration is made during any way in which Nigeria is physically involved; or-
In his opinion, it is otherwise contrary to public policy.
(4)For the purposes of subsection(1) of this section. ‘Full age’ means the age of eighteen years and above. Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age”
It is pertinent to note that section 29(4)(a) of the Constitution defines “full age” to mean the age of eighteen years and above. However, in recognition of child marriage section 29(4)(b) of the Constitution states that “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age”.
The Constitution Review Committee of the Senate had rightly recommended that Section 29(4)(b) of the Constitution be deleted as citizenship has no bearing on gender. In his contribution to the debate on the matter Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima argued against the removal of the clause on the ground that it is against the religion of Islam.
The Senator led his colleagues to believe that once a girl child is married she automatically metamorphose into an adult to the extent that she is capable to make an informed decision on renunciation of her citizenship.
Surprisingly, the Senate agreed with the misleading contribution of Senator Yerima and proceeded to vote against the recommendation that the controversial clause be deleted from the Constitution. Having married a 13-year old Egyptian child in 2010 in contravention of the Child’s Rights Act, 2003 without sanction Senator Yerima was encouraged to lobby the Senate not to delete section 29(4)(b) of the Constitution which has recognized child marriage.
In rejecting the recommendation the Senators did not advert their minds to section 42 of the Constitution which has abolished discrimination on the basis of political opinion, places of origin, ethnicity, sex or religion. The Senate failed to appreciate that the Child’s Right Act, 2003 has prescribed 18 years as the minimum age of marriage in Nigeria in line with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child which was ratified by Nigeria in 2001.The attention of legislators who believe in child marriage should be drawn to section 23 of the Child’s Right Act which provides as follows:
“A person –Who marries a child; or To whom a child is betrothed; or Who promotes the marriage of a child; or Who betroths a child commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500,000.00 or imprisonment to a term of 5-year or both such term and imprisonment.”
The Child’s Rights Act which is applicable in the Federal Capital Territory has been adopted in 24 states. Apart from Enugu State in the South all the other States that have refused to adopt the Child’s Right Act are in the northern parts of the country. These States are: (1) Sokoto, (2) Kebbi, (3) Zamfara, (4) Katsina, (5) Kano, (6) Kaduna, (7) Bauchi, (8) Gombe, (9) Yobe, (10) Borno, (11) Adamawa and (12) Enugu.
The Child’s Right laws have been passed in Ebonyi, Kogi and Niger States but the laws are awaiting Governors’ assent. We are compelled to make this disclosure as section 15 of the Child’s Right Act has imposed a duty on the government to provide free and compulsory education from primary to junior secondary school for every child.
Thus, by not adopting the Child’s Right Act the aforementioned States have continued to promote child marriage, child labour, illiteracy and ignorance in the country.
Looking at Section 29(4)(b), it will be discovered that the judicial interpretation of that section goes beyond child marriage. Regrettably, the interpretation of that section is that, any girl child who is married is deemed to be an adult and can therefore be presumed to have criminal liabilities, contractual liability, right to vote, capacity to sue and be sued since she is presumed to be of full age!!
Nigeria, like most other countries has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child since 2001. Therefore, Nigeria has an obligation to give effect to this Convention. Nigeria can therefore not derogate from it by making contradictory municipal laws.
From the investigation conducted by the Women Empowerment and Legal Aid (WELA) we found that protagonists of child marriage in Nigeria do not allow their children to engage in child marriage as they are in special schools at home and abroad when they are under 18 years of age.
Apart from disrupting the education of the girl child early marriage constitutes a danger to her health. It has been medically ascertained that incidence of Vesico Vagina Fistula (VVF) is prevalent among girl children forced into early marriage.
In the light of the foregoing we call on the Senate to review its dangerous position and vote for the deletion of Section 29(4)(b) from the Constitution. We also call on the 12 States that have not adopted the Child’s Right Act, 2003 to do so without any further delay. Finally, we call on the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammed Adoke SAN to ensure that Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima is prosecuted for violating section 23 of the Child’s Right Act by marrying a 13-year old Egyptian girl in 2010.